Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why I Love HTMLDB

Over the last 3 years or so I have got to know HTMLDB well, and have become a big fan of it - as a development tool, not as a "power user toy". I have successfully built and deployed a number of HTMLDB applications. I find it appeals to me in a way that .Net and J2EE never have. Why is this? Here are some reasons:

  • all programming is in PL/SQL, my favourite programming language

  • all the "boring bits" like pagination of record sets are built-in

  • integration with the Oracle database is seamless

  • you don't need a big application server to support it

  • there is no question of reinventing the wheel by caching data, locking data, implementing business rules in the "middle tier" (there is NO "middle tier"!)


There are, I must admit, some shortcomings:

  • it was not designed with large applications and large development teams in mind, so code and build management is a challenge (but one that we are learning to overcome)

  • some of the functionality is not yet quite as robust as it could be (hopefully this will improve as the product matures)


However, HTMLDB doesn't seem to be to everyone's taste. Some hardened J2EE fanatics think it is a toy that is not good enough to be used by "programming professionals" - see for example this exchange I had on Oracle WTF.

I guess one of the key comments from the J2EE fan was this: "and as an ex Forms programmer NOTHING is a backward step from oracle forms!"

Now, I will admit that Oracle Forms is now getting rather old and tired - but in its heyday (around 1990-1995) it was a great product. What it did was integrate seamlessly with the database and do all the drudgery of paginating record sets etc. while you got on with implementing the business requirements. In fact, all the reasons I gave above for liking HTMLDB apply equally to Oracle Forms.

But for some years now, Forms has been looking like a "legacy system" - shoe-horned into the ubiquitous browser interface as WebForms but never looking quite at home there. And the alternatives I saw seemed to be a step backwards in terms of data management:

  • ASP/.Net: write lots of VB code and hand-crank things like record pagination

  • J2EE: write lots of Java code (which looks a LOT like C!), build your own classes to wrap around database objects etc. And cope with the "standards" that came and went like pop idols (JSF is it currently?)


Then I came across HTMLDB, promoted by Tom Kyte on his AskTom website. You could try it out for free, without even downloading anything, on Oracle's hosted HTMLDB development website. Of course, as with anything, there was a learning curve to get over, which probably took me a few months (elapsed: I was only playing with HTMLDB in my spare time.) But what was very soon apparent to me was that this could be the successor to Oracle Forms that I had been waiting for.

However, in their wisdom Oracle have decided to position HTMLDB as a "power user toy" to replace Excel and Access for very small databases - which it certainly can do. But this marketing undermines HTMLDB as a tool for "serious" application developers. It has been suggested to me that this may be because HTMLDB didn't come out of the Oracle Tools group, which of course has JDeveloper to promote.

Once I had built some small-scale applications with HTMLDB to replace aging Forms applications used only internally, the people I work for were sufficiently impressed to consider using it for something a lot bigger. I built a prototype which was received favourably, but we knew we ought to at least look at JDeveloper with ADF, since that is the approach Oracle recommend for moving away from Forms. So we got Oracle to send us someone to demonstrate JDeveloper to us. It all looked very slick, knocking up an "emp and dept" application in a few minutes - but nothing that couldn't have been done just as easily with HTMLDB. And when he tried to customise the application at our request, he quickly came unstuck. Soon afterwards, a colleague went to an Oracle "Developer Day" (or some such title) where JDeveloper was demoed agan. This time, the compilation process failed with a fatal error, and the demonstrator gave up and moved on to something else. What with these unimpressive demonstrations and the fact that our business logic already exists in the form of PL/SQL packages, it was very clear that HTMLDB was the only realistic option to replace the system within the timescale and budget allowed. (My impression is that JDeveloper might be really good in about 3 years time!)

But even if we were building a brand new system, my philosophy would be to build the business logic as PL/SQL packages and then build a light UI application on top of that: I really don't buy the whole J2EE way of doing things. It implies that the application is king, rather than the data. As Tom Kyte often says: applications come and go, but the data lasts "for ever".

So, for now at least, I am staking my future on HTMLDB rather than J2EE. Maybe I'll regret that one day, but I doubt it.

3 comments:

Joel R. Kallman said...

Hi Tony,

I stumbled upon your blog tonight. I loved this post from 2006 (as well as your discourse on oracle-wtf). I'm curious - how do you feel today about this posting, and about HTML DB/APEX 3 years later? Maybe it's time for a new blog post. ;)

Regards,
Joel

Tony Andrews said...

Joel,

Thanks for the feedback. You are right, I should blog about this topic 3 years on. For now, rest assured that I haven't changed my mind!

Tony

Learco Brizzi said...

Tony,

Let me guess, you still feel the same about it, isn't it?

Regards,
Learco